Wither anthropology?

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sun, 23 Jul 1995 10:45:49 JST

Bill Loker writes,

"We have promoted respect for cultural difference as
virtually an unquestioned principle of our intellectual trade.
Anthropologists have long been advocates (and justifiably so) of
cultural diversity, which in the current era is translated into
championing ethnic diversity. It is only a small step from
supporting ethnic diversity to encouraging ethnic pride, to ...
ethnic chauvinism, ethnocentrism and ethnic cleansing."

Willard Brooks writes,

" As the resources aloted to our discipline continue to shrink and
as the power of the modern [capitalist] world system continues to
grow our in-fighting over increasingly meagre and perhaps
inconsequential scraps of political power increases. This does not
bode well for our future."

Has anyone but me seemed to notice a connection here? Could it
be that

(1) anthropology, conceived as the study of "primitive," "tribal,"
generally speaking "other" peoples, was justified as (a) compiling
a record of ways of life threatened by modernization that was
seen as leading to a homogenized world society and (b) thus
providing the data needed for a full understanding of humanity.

(2) anthropology now stands nakedly revealed as the ideological
form through which grasping academics sought to justify a cushy
life with foreign travel and adventure laid on as part of their
perks, which made it necessary to insist that "my" fieldwork with
"my" people was, whatever it was, as important as anyone else's.

(3) what is called "critical" theory is a species of verbal abuse by
which we succeed (a) in putting down our competitors while (b)
defending our own, too often thin or specious, claims.

I, myself, still hold to the old-fashioned vision in (1), but am not
insensitive to the appeals of (2) and (3), especially to "populist"
politicians in an age when the academy is increasingly out of

I observe, with regret, that the academy's special status as a
haven for free thought was always based on the assumption that
the study of "science" or
other "higher things" justified a special consideration from
society's worker bees. Now that we have shown that science is
flawed and, we maintain, there are no "higher things," all things
being equal in an MTV world, why should we who love the
academy expect special treatment from anyone?

I, old fart that I am, will cling to science and to scholarship
modeled on science. Not because I think it perfect; I take it for
granted that all human projects are flawed. But, instead, as
Winston Churchill said of democracy, it's better than anything

In conclusion, I direct your attention to an interview with John
Brockman, author of a book called _The Third Culture_ in the
August edition of WIRED. To Bill, Willard, John Stevens, and the
others who will be the next generation of anthropologists, if
anthropology still exists, I say, listen up when Brockman says,

"The literary culture I talk about is pretty well finished. Let me
emphasize that I'm not talking about all literature, but about a
specific culture of literary commentators that became dominant
about 50 years ago, in periodicals like _The Partisan Review,
Commentary_ and _Encounter_. It was an establishment that
dictated fashionable discourse and prided itself on indifference to
science. It favored opinions and ideology over empirical testing
of ideas--commentary spiraling upon commentary. As a cultural
force it's a dead end."

Don't be buried with it.

John McCreery (in whom hope and cynicism live in oscillating